Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015: Second Stage

Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

The Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015 provides for the amendment of Article 12 of the Constitution. It provides for the age at which a citizen becomes eligible for election to the office of President to be reduced from 35 years, the current position, to 21 years. It is a short Bill but an important Bill in the context of the Office of President, as provided for in our Constitution.

Article 12 of the Constitution provides that the President shall: "take precedence over all other persons in the State" and "shall exercise and perform the powers and functions conferred on the President by this Constitution and by law". Given this position in the Constitution, the proposal to reduce the age at which a citizen is eligible for election to the Office of President is a significant proposal. Indeed, proposals to change our Constitution are always significant milestones in the ongoing development of our State.

The genesis of the Bill lies in the first report of the Constitutional Convention. It examined the proposal to reduce the presidential term of office to five years and to align it with local and European elections. It recommended against that change but, in its examination of the issue, the matter of the age at which a citizen could become President arose. This led to the recommendation that the age of candidacy for presidential elections be reduced from 35 years. The Government accepted the recommendation and agreed that a referendum should be held in 2015 on reducing the age from 35 to 21, the same as the minimum age for Dáil and European election candidates - in short, in keeping with the alignment.

As this Bill has emerged from the recommendation of the convention, I think we should again acknowledge the work done by the convention in bringing forward proposals for constitutional change.

The programme for Government provided for the establishment of the convention. It proved itself to be an innovation in democratic deliberation in Ireland. The convention was made up of 66 citizens selected from the electoral register as representative of the composition of Irish society, plus 33 politicians, including a number from the Northern Ireland Assembly, plus an independent chairman. The impact of their work is clear. The two referendums to be held in May are based on recommendations made by the convention. In addition, the convention recommended in its fourth report that an electoral commission should be established. The Government accepted that recommendation and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, recently took the first steps in setting up an independent electoral commission. On 27 January last, he published a consultation paper and earlier this month he met with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to discuss it as part of the pre-legislative process. The committee will now engage in a consultation process and report to him with recommendations.

On the Bill and the specific proposal to lower the age at which a citizen becomes eligible for election to the Office of President, Members of the House will be interested to know that the question was considered previously in reviews of the Constitution undertaken in the 1990s. The members of the 1996 Constitution review group were divided on the issue. Some members saw no sufficient reason to differentiate between eligibility for Dáil membership and for the Presidency. They were prepared to rely on the judgment of the electorate to make a proper choice between candidates. However, others considered that the Presidency called for special qualities which were more likely to accrue and mature over a longer span of years than 21. In the end, the majority of members favoured no change, or only a minor reduction in the age limit.

The all-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution took a different view in its 1998 report on the President. It recommended that any citizen who had reached the age of 18 should be regarded as eligible for election to the office of President. The committee believed that there was no logical reason for setting the age at which one becomes eligible to be President at a greater age than that at which one may exercise the right to vote in elections. In making this recommendation, the committee felt that young people should be encouraged to engage in politics. They took the view that any young candidates who succeeded in being nominated would be exceptional and worthy candidates.

In the event, these recommendations were not taken up at the time and the age question effectively lay dormant until the Constitutional Convention considered it again in 2012, 14 years later. A narrow majority of the members of the convention, 50% for and 47% against, found in favour of lowering the age at which a citizen could become eligible for election to the Office of President. While the convention report did not advance any arguments for or against lowering the age threshold, the proposal has since generated debate among political commentators and in the media. I think this commentary, together with the points raised in the Constitution reviews undertaken in the 1990s, are worth reflecting upon.

Arguments advanced in favour of lowering the age threshold from 35 include the consideration that it would generate a greater diversity of potential candidates, thereby providing a greater choice for the electorate. The view is advanced that the electorate can be trusted to judge the suitability of candidates irrespective of their age. It is also argued that capacity to undertake the job need not be age related and, more generally, that it might encourage younger people to engage in politics.

On the other hand, it is argued that there is no public demand for change. It is suggested that lowering the age threshold could weaken the Office of President as considerable experience is seen as desirable in making decisions about such matters as referral of a Bill to the Supreme Court or dissolution of the Dáil. There is also the view that the older age brings a certain gravitas to the office that might be absent among young persons.

International experience gives no real guide but it is interesting to note the wide divergence that exists. The age of eligibility for holding presidential office ranges from 18 in Croatia, Finland and France, for example, to 50 in Italy. Most countries have a minimum age requirement of 35 or 40 years for eligibility for the office of president. The age of Presidents in Ireland, when they first took office, has ranged from 46 to 78 years. The Government, in accepting the convention recommendation to lower the age threshold, agreed that a minimum age of 21 would be appropriate as it matches the minimum age for election to the Dáil and European Parliament. While the amendment to the Constitution to give effect to this may not be very difficult technically, it will only be possible to gauge the impact of the change over time. That is, of course, if the proposed amendment is passed by the people in the forthcoming referendum.

The people, the final arbiters, will have their opportunity to decide in the referendum whether or not they approve of the change. In the event that they do approve and that a person younger than 35 is a candidate at some future election, the people will ultimately decide on the suitability of that person for election to the Office of President.

On referendums generally, I have noted the commentary in the media about other recommendations of the Constitutional Convention and, more particularly, when referendums on these might be progressed. As the House is well aware, this Government has run six referendums since coming into office and there will be a further two referendums in May, both of them arising from recommendations of the convention.

Earlier this year, the Taoiseach indicated in the Dáil that, while he does not envisage any further referendums being held in 2015, this is something for the Government to consider at a later stage. It is the clear Government position that the best approach is for two referendums only to be held in May. This is a reasonable position. While the Government agreed to a referendum on lowering the voting age to 16 in 2015, we believe that it would be premature to proceed with the vote in May. This matter was discussed, and the Government's position on it outlined, in the House in February and March when Private Members' Bills on lowering the voting age and voting by citizens resident outside the State were debated.

The debate on the proposed amendments to the Constitution for the May referendums has already begun. Following the publication of the constitutional amendment Bills, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, established on 27 of January 2015 the referendum commissions in respect of both referendum proposals. It is the commission's task to explain the subject matter of the referendums to the electorate, to promote public awareness of the referendums and to encourage the electorate to vote. The commissions' preparatory work is underway.

I will now outline the details of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the amendment of Article 12 of the Constitution as set out in the Schedule to the Bill. Section 2 provides for the standard citation of constitutional amendment Bills. Part 1 of the Schedule to the Bill provides for the substitution of the Irish text of Article 12.4.1° of the Constitution. The new text provides that every citizen who has reached the age of 21 years is eligible for election to the Office of President.

Part 2 of the Schedule to the Bill provides for the substitution of the English text of Article 12.4.1° of the Constitution. The new text provides that every citizen who has reached the age of 21 years will be eligible for election to the office of President. The opportunity is being taken here to correct a possible conflict between the Irish and English texts of Article 12.4.1°, as they currently stand. While the Irish text requires a candidate to have completed 35 years of age, the English text requires a candidate to have reached the 35th year, which would be on their 34th birthday. In the amendment to the Constitution now proposed, both the Irish and English texts of the Bill are aligned. Attention was drawn to this possible conflict between the Irish and English texts in the Constitution review reports undertaken in the 1990s that I mentioned. The all-party Oireachtas committee noted that the issue had been raised by the eminent constitutional lawyer Mr. John Kelly, a former Member of this House, in his book The Irish Constitution.

This is a short but important Bill and I commend it to the House. Our democratic processes and our full participation in them are important for all of us so I encourage people to vote in order to have their say in the outcome of the referendum. I commend the Bill to the House.

Fianna Fáil supports the holding of a referendum on this issue. We supported the proposal at the meetings of the Constitutional Convention also, but as part of a wide range of measures to increase diversity and the level of choice available on the ballot paper to the citizen. While diversity and choice are important at election time, the decision by the Government to proceed with this referendum when there are more pressing issues of political reform to be considered, including the long list provided by the Constitutional Convention, is another distraction from the need for the current Administration to engage in real government.

Proposals of the convention include proposals to strengthen economic and social rights, to elect the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot, to reduce the voting age to 16, and to ensure citizens living abroad are entitled to vote in future elections. However, the Government has effectively shut down debate on these issues of very genuine political reform. As a result, it is denying citizens the right to make decisions on how to reform the political system and culture. The Government has not taken the opportunity to propose a list of minor changes advocated at the Constitutional Convention, which the Government itself set up. From what we can see, it has completely given up at this stage on the idea of holding a Constitution day. It was very fond of advocating this before the last general election and in the first year in office. Overall, this Bill is a cynical sop of political reform, and my party and I believe it is patronising to young people. At a time when the Government is deciding not to hold a referendum that would see the voting age reduced to 16 and other promised measures introduced, it is deciding to bring forward this proposal instead. The proposal is particularly patronising towards citizens between 18 and 21, who are being excluded by it. Those aged 16 and 17 who were looking forward to the option of participating in future elections must now be satisfied with the current proposal, which the Government regards as the most important to be brought before the country in order to seek change and for which it seeks support.

The idea of lowering the age of candidacy was one of the most divisive discussed at the Constitutional Convention last year. The vote at the convention was 50 in favour and 47 against, with three not taking a position on the matter. This shows the matter was not cut and dried, nor a result of the fact that views on it were mixed. It was regarded by the Constitutional Convention as likely to have been adopted and taken forward by the Government at a quicker pace than many of the more urgent and meaningful reforms that had been discussed and that would have had widespread support at the convention. Fianna Fáil backed the idea at the convention, but that was in the belief that it would be a relatively small part of a package of constitutional reform measures to be put to the public as part of what was mooted for Constitution Day. This was the impression of other participants who took part in the convention and debated the issue. In 2011, the Taoiseach promised a programme to allow for a series of constitutional amendments to be decided on what would be called "Constitution Day", to be held within 12 months of a new Government being formed and including a complex question on the abolition of the Seanad. Unfortunately, the Government backtracked on its promise to hold this much-vaunted Constitution day. It now seems to have given up on making any meaningful constitutional or political reforms.

We do not see any great public demand for a vote on the age of the President. I am not sure it was ever brought up with the Minister of State by any of her constituents in advance of its being discussed at the Constitutional Convention. I venture it was not. A straw poll of Deputies to determine how many of them were asked by constituents at any stage in their political careers to seek to reduce from 35 the minimum age of eligibility to run in presidential elections would indicate very few have experienced such public demand. It is not a matter about which there is much excitement. The opposite is the truth; there is much confusion as to why the Government is actually bringing this stand-alone referendum forward without a suite of much more meaningful reforms.

Candidates for Dáil and European Parliament elections must be aged 21. Candidates running for local elections can run once they become 18. It is a well-established practice for countries to opt for a higher age for certain political offices, in accordance with the importance attached to those positions. In Austria, for example, a presidential candidate must be 35 years of age. In Germany, Lithuania and Romania, the age is 40, while Italy requires its presidential candidates to have reached the age of 50. A number of countries have lower age thresholds. Slovenia and France, for example, both have set the age of candidacy at 18. France, in particular, is interesting because its President has much greater powers than in many other countries, where the position tends to be more ceremonial in nature.

There are, however, several arguments in favour of reducing the age. The main ones are the need for greater diversity on the ballot paper and the need to give voters more choice. Lowering the minimum age of presidential candidates represents a step towards broadening political representation. However, as I pointed out, when such a measure is brought forward in isolation, as it is today, it comes across very much as a sop and a patronising measure rather than one to broaden participation.

Lowering candidate age thresholds can lead to greater youth participation in politics.

However, this is a very difficult case to make since research on election turnout and youth political participation indicates that it is influenced by a wide series of factors. Candidate age limits, in particular, are not necessarily prominent among these. Any choice of an age threshold above the age of adulthood, at 18, is arbitrary. The choice of a higher age candidacy requirement is subjective. There is no scientific evidence to suggest someone is more emotionally matured at 35 than at 30 and no guarantee that as people age they will earn more life or political experience.

This referendum is an insult to young people moving abroad, whether on contract or on a more permanent basis. Our emigrants were meant to have a say in presidential elections. This happens in many other states across the world. That option is off the table in this referendum. It would have been a suitable and opportune time to include it and to have the question debated. It would have been much more meaningful as well in terms of its impact had the Government decided to do it. Unfortunately, this has not been the case here.

Several arguments have been made against the idea of reducing the threshold, such as the requirement of nomination by either 20 Members of the Oireachtas or four of the county or city councils to get onto the presidential ballot paper. The nomination process would be a difficult hurdle for a young candidate to overcome. A younger President would also lack the experience which would help him or her handle difficult decisions such as constitutional crises and face down heavy pressure such as was exerted in the past. This is an argument being made by those who feel the threshold should stay the same. When changes are being made to the Constitution, many would argue that it is important someone with significant life experience would be involved. This is the alternative side of the argument.

The Government has failed to live up to its much vaunted new politics. The Minister's attempt with regard to the mere abolition of the Seanad was a bad beginning to how the Government has handled this issue. The Government brought forward a referendum simply to abolish it, with little thought as to how the functions that are performed by the Seanad could be properly embraced within a one Chamber Parliament. The public rejected at that stage what it saw as a PR effort with little meaningful content on changing politics. This is one of the Government's follow up options for proposals to be put to the people. It is relatively minor in the sense that it is seeking to reduce the age threshold to be a Presidential candidate. This will also be cynically looked upon by the public who rightly expected much more from the Government, given its mandate at the last election.

The history of the Government's measures illustrates its real failure to grasp the nettle of reform. Instead, the Government has concentrated power in the hands of the Economic Management Council at the expense of the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government has also systematically broken programme for Government pledges not to guillotine legislation. Some 63% of legislation has been guillotined to date. The Government has also failed to implement its programme for Government commitment to allow for a minimum of two weeks between various stages of Bills. This has been the case in up to 78% of the Bills which this Government has brought to the floor of the Dáil and the Seanad.

The Topical Issues debate has been completely undermined by the regular failure of relevant Ministers to present themselves before the House to take those issues. This has been the case in up to 40% of instances. As a result of that, where a Member of this House exercises his or her right to have the issue deferred, one less Topical Issue is taken on that day. If there are four Topical Issues and two Ministers do not turn up and the Member exercises his or her right to defer it, this could mean that perhaps only two Topical Issues would be taken on that particular day. They are scarce enough as things exist already.

The Friday sitting farce has also come to be widely seen as window dressing to bolster sitting days without seeing any real debate or the normal cut and thrust of exchange and impromptu debate seen during Leaders' Questions.

The Government continues to engage in cronyism in State-----

The Deputy has been way off the line in the past couple of minutes. He should please stick to the Bill.

It is relevant-----

The Deputy is here long enough to know what is relevant without a lecture from me.

It is relevant to the extent that, unfortunately, what we are seeing here is a Government conforming with a very narrow proposal for reform. This Government promised genuine political reform. This is a key point and a fair point to make. We should be seeing much wider proposals being put to the people, proposals which were discussed at the Constitutional Convention and which could have been brought forward alongside this Bill. The Government's record on this issue is therefore relevant. This is seen as a real disappointment by a public with an appetite for genuine reform.

My party supports the Bill. We supported this proposal at the Constitutional Convention, but as part of a much wider and genuine change and reform of the Constitution. We are disappointed to see that this is the measure the Government is putting forward as it is such a small measure.

Sinn Féin welcomes the proposal to lower the age at which people can stand for the Presidency. It is a welcome move. However, the Government has missed an opportunity. It has missed a chance to extend democratic rights. The Government has reneged on its commitment to hold a referendum on extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds by the end of 2015. It is said that people campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This is governing by full stops and commas. It is a missed opportunity.

Sinn Féin recently brought forward a Bill to this House to extend voting rights. Fine Gael and the Labour Party did not oppose it, but was that more about public relations? If the Government is genuine about it, it would bring the legislation forward and hold a referendum on the same day as the referendum on this proposal and the proposal on same-sex marriage, which Sinn Féin very much welcomes as a positive step by this Government. There is an opportunity here, for little or no extra cost, to do this. When we brought forward the Bill, even though it was not opposed, youth organisations in the Vote at 16 alliance were disappointed with the Government decision not to hold the referendum. The youth groups see our proposal as the best means to extend democratic rights.

We also support the need to extend voting rights to members of the diaspora and Irish citizens in the Six Counties. This is particularly important in the context of the Presidency. We have a very good President. The last President, Mary McAleese, was a citizen of the Six Counties. She was obviously an Irish citizen but she was resident in the Six Counties. That she would not have had the right to vote for herself shows the need to do this.

Most of what Sinn Féin advocates with regard to the extension of voting rights was also supported by the Constitutional Convention.

We support the view that the extension should be in combination with appropriate electoral and civic education, for example, the proposed new subjects on politics in its broadest sense at leaving certificate level.

From a practical point of view, there is no reason that a referendum on such issues cannot be held on the same day as the referendum to lower the age at which people can stand for the Presidency. Lowering the minimum age for candidates and the voting age could only ensure that political interest is cultivated early. Such civic and social political engagement is an integral part of people's personal and social development. Most Deputies, including the Minister of State, the Acting Chairman and me, probably entered politics young. I did not enter because of civic education, but because of what I had picked up on the streets. Most of us became interested at a young age, probably in our mid to late teens.

Participation in extracurricular activities outside the classroom, for example, youth organisations, sports and debating societies, the right to vote at 16 years of age and the lowering of the age for presidential candidates would serve to empower young people, giving them the right to influence decisions that affect their lives. Since the introduction of a voting age of 16 years in Austria, research on voting behaviour in people aged between 16 and 18 years revealed that they were interested in politics. Two thirds expressed an interest in the election campaign and turnout was comparable with the total national figure. Our Government may be interested to know that those young people did not show signs of voting more radically than the adult population. I understand that some surveys in Ireland may have shown a different result, but reducing voting eligibility to 16 years of age would also serve to kickstart the promotion and awareness of and participation in politics among young people in terms of the issues affecting them. The earlier we can engage young people in democracy and politics, the greater the chance that we will promote and sustain a lifelong interest in and commitment to voting and participating in the democratic process.

There is a significant problem with voter registration. We in the environment committee addressed this matter yesterday. In a survey conducted last year, up to 30% of people aged between 18 and 25 years were not registered to vote. This is partly due to the fact that, at 18 years of age, the majority of people are moving away from their homes and families to college, training or work. They fall through the administrative cracks. However, the majority of 16 year olds are in school or training. As such, it would be easy for local authorities to put them on the register. Nearly all 16 to 18 year olds are in school or training. It would be easy to catch them because we would know where they were, namely, towns and second level colleges. It would be a brilliant opportunity to put them on the register of electors.

If a 16 year old can leave school, seek full-time employment, pay tax and obtain a licence to drive certain vehicles, why can he or she not be entrusted with the civic responsibility of voting? The youth sections of the main political parties allow people to join at 15 or 16 years of age. In my party's case, it is 16 years of age. Therefore, political parties recognise the capacity and importance of people engaging in politics as early as possible. The ideal behind any democratic system of governance is to establish a government that is representative of the electorate. When a large section of the population does not and cannot participate in the democratic process, we cannot claim to represent it fully.

Unlike previous generations, modern young people are much more informed by, for example, civic, social and political education courses in school. Previous generations may only have had access to local and national media, essentially RTE, the Irish Press or, for some, the Irish Independent. Unlike them, young people today have access to a range of media and social media networks, for example, Twitter, Facebook, etc., where they can get information and engage in debate on political issues.

We welcome the Government's announcement of the introduction of a new subject on politics and society at senior cycle level, as it is important that young people be taught about democracy and democratic participation. However, the introduction of the right to vote alongside the lowering of the age of eligibility for presidential candidates would excite young people and incentivise them not only to learn about participation in the electoral system, but to experience it through voting.

I heard a Deputy on the Government benches state that, while supportive of the Bill, he or she would be unlikely to vote for someone aged under 35 years. That is fine, but allowing someone younger than that to stand is important. The involvement of more young people in politics would introduce innovative and fresh ideas into policy making. It would be fair to say that this is a younger Dáil than the previous one. Some new ideas are coming in as a result. Lowering the voting age would also ensure that the issues affecting young people would gain more prominence in the political arena because they would be able to exercise their franchise and influence the policy-making process.

On the issue of consistency with our European counterparts, there is a global momentum towards extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds, for example, for the recent Scottish referendum, where 75% of that age cohort voted. That is amazing. Given this success, the Scottish Government has decided to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in Scottish parliamentary elections. This is positive and progressive from a country that is similar to ours in many ways.

There is strong evidence to support the extension of democratic rights to young people. The Government is missing an opportunity. I am not having a go. I say this sincerely. The Constitutional Convention recognised this issue. Sinn Féin has long advocated such an approach. It would be a positive step forward. While I support the Bill, I call on the Government to revisit the question of extending voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. I have outlined the evidence of its benefits. Voting rights in presidential elections could also be extended to members of the diaspora and people in the North. Doing so for the latter would be simple. Ms Mary McAleese was nearly as popular on the Shankill Road as she was on the Falls Road. President Higgins is popular in the North. People of both traditions in the North respect the Presidency. We have an opportunity to extend the right to vote on an all-Ireland basis. The Government might not be ready yet to extend full voting rights, but we want to see a united Ireland. Ensuring that people in the North who wish to do so - there is nothing compulsory in this - can vote in presidential elections would be a positive step towards bringing the two parts of the island together.

I call Deputy Catherine Murphy, who is sharing time with Deputies Boyd Barrett and Donnelly.

The Deputies will have five minutes each.

I am underwhelmed by the proposal that is to be put before the people, not because there is no need for change in the role of the Presidency and how we elect the President, but because of how tame this is compared with what is required.

I was a member of the Constitutional Convention and diligently went along to all but one of the sessions, the one on blasphemy. I remember the debate we had on this topic because I had brought forward a Bill in December 2011, which was debated in this Chamber on a Friday. I was told that I would have to wait until the Constitutional Convention had completed its deliberations and could put forward a list of well thought out proposals. My Bill was not very different from the proposals made by the all-party review committee on the Constitution which had deliberated in 1998, following which former Minister Jim O'Keeffe also brought forward a Bill similar to the one I proposed not long after the current President was elected.

Of all the issues on which the Constitutional Convention focused, the one which attracted the most attention was a proposal to widen the process by which people nominated candidates to stand for the office in order that they would not be a hostage to the political parties. It advocated greater engagement along the lines of what was envisaged in the all-party report which suggested 10,000 citizens nominate a candidate to stand. It was not proposed in order that we would have a very long ballot paper but rather to provide for greater choice. The President should be above party politics, but this Bill does not address that issue. It tinkers with something in a way that amounts to housekeeping rather than bringing about fundamental change in respect of the office of President.

I predict that we will see a lack of activity on the Government side today and that the only ones who will make a contribution will be those on the Opposition side. The Government side knows that it is a tame measure and that it is difficult to come into the House and be positive about a Bill that is so limited. My Bill of 2011 sought to broaden the nominating role. In 1997 local authorities took on a nominating role for the first time and that energised the campaign, something which has been a feature of campaigns since. There have been six occasions on which the people have been denied by the fact that the parties agreed among themselves not to put forward a candidate to stand against an incumbent, leading to a 14-year gap until they were given the right to elect a President to represent them.

As I said, this Bill is underwhelming and I fear that there will be loads of unmarked ballot papers in the ballot box. There is a huge lack of ambition and so much more could have been done. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Constitutional Convention was held when so little attention has been paid to it. Its report mentioned a prominent theme to emerge from the deliberations of smaller groups. That was whether the nominating rules should be amended to give a greater role to citizens in nominating candidates for the Presidency. That is what really grabbed people's attention when we were debating the issues, but it has been ignored.

One of the things about which I have a regret is signing a letter asking the President to intervene in the water charge legislation as this indicated that the President had powers over and above those he has. I regret that this brought the President into a row into which he should not have been brought.

An African proverb goes "The lion roared and it gave birth to a mouse." That pretty much sums up this referendum proposal. The roaring lion was the voices of the people calling for a democratic revolution which the Government had promised and the mouse is a referendum about changing the age at which somebody can run for President. It is almost not worth dignifying the Bill with a serious debate on the proposal made. If it turns up on the ballot paper, with a heavy heart and thinking about what we could be doing for young people and other issues more urgent for society, I will probably put my "X" in the box in favour, but it is crass tokenism of the worst sort.

I understand that when the Constitutional Convention asked for submissions to help it to prioritise its agenda, it was told that, unsurprisingly, the most important issues were economic, social and cultural rights - the things that affect people immediately. Given the litany of tragedies suffered by pregnant women in difficult pregnancies, other things might have been better subjects of a referendum such as a woman's right to choose. Instead we have this piece of tokenism.

I wish to comment on the nod to youth and young people implied in the Bill. We need to do things urgently for young people, but this is not it. If the Bill passes, one will be able to run for President at 21 years, but if a person is under 26 and has not got a job, his or her social welfare entitlement has been cut to €100. How is somebody under 26 years who is not living at home and cannot find a job going to run a presidential campaign? They cannot even put a roof over their heads on €100 per week. A person aged under 26 years who is not in employment and cannot live at home is homeless by definition. Such persons cannot afford to pay rent and the rent supplement they receive will not get them within a stone's throw of being able to put a roof over their heads. That is why young people are on the streets. Why are we not doing something about this?

We have had a children's rights referendum and have a Minister with special responsibility for children, but the situation for young people with mental health problems is diabolical. On 20 occasions in the past five or six weeks I have pressed for a Topical Issue debate on the chronic lack of resources, support and beds for young people with mental health problems or who are suicidal. I cannot have a debate on it, however, while we are having a referendum about which nobody really cares. We have the highest rate of suicide in the European Union among young women and the second highest rate for young men, a rate which has spiked dramatically in the past while. Professor Fiona McNicholas recently protested that there was a deluge of young people with mental health problems who had to be put in beds in accident and emergency departments, which blocked up such departments.

We do not have enough psychologists and a report issued in the past week stated that, in Cork alone, 1,000 people were waiting to see social workers. Some 200 are serious, urgent cases involving suicidal ideation and other problems, but there is a chronic lack of resources to provide for them.

The Children's Rights Alliance published a report today in which it has shown that the Government has failed in this area and it has given it an "E" grade in terms of the provision of mental health services for our young people. It is a disaster. Child poverty stands at 28%. It is a joke. What has been put forward is a nauseating tokenism when we should be dealing with the real issues that affect our young people.

The legislation before the House seeks to put a referendum to the Irish people to lower the age of eligibility for election to the Office of President. I will be supporting the Bill and supporting a "Yes" vote in the referendum.

The Constitution sets the minimum age of eligibility for a person to run for President in the Republic at 35 years. De Valera when he was explaining this stated that such a person would need to be able to exercise wise discretion. It would appear de Valera took this rule, among others, from the Weimar Republic's rules. While age may bring experience the goings-on in this House during the past years provide categoric proof that being over 35 years of age does not necessarily imbue one with the ability to exercise wise discretion.

The referendum will seek to lower the age of eligibility for election to 21 years of age in line with the Dáil but I believe it should go further and be lowered to the age of 18 years. The Constitutional Convention recommended that the age of eligibility for election to the Dáil be reduced from 21 to 18, as it has been for the local elections. I would like this to be amended before the legislation is passed. I do not understand the rationale for having 18 versus 21 as the age of eligibility for election. It is a democratic process and it is up to the people of Ireland to decide who they want. If they believe a 19 year old is wise enough and 50 year old or a 70 year old is not wise enough, then surely it is up to the candidates to put those positions to the people. However, a move in lowering the age of eligibility for election from 35 to 21 is a significant move, at least in age terms, in the right direction and, as such, I will support it.

The problem I have is not so much with this Bill but with what this Bill is coming ahead of. We now know that the Government has heavily controlling instincts. It consolidates and centralises power. It has locked Parliament, its own backbenchers and policy professionals out of decision making. We have a maniacal control of the Whip, which I am told, by people who have been observing Parliaments for many years, is at an unprecedented level of control. We have the Economic Management Council, which did not exist prior to this Government, centralising key decision making in the country. There has been almost a refusal by the Executive to accept amendments to legislation tabled by Members of this House and in so doing it has rendered the national Legislature completely irrelevant.

National democracy in Ireland occurs about once every five years with the selection of a top team and then that top team just gets on with it. We had the ridiculous situation where the Taoiseach stuffed the banking inquiry with loyalists after the due process of the House, essentially overthrowing it, and then being so comfortable with that, he came in here and explained to us that the reason he did it was so that he could control the independent parliamentary inquiry.

One initiative the Government undertook to its credit, in the face of this damaging and unhealthy centralisation of power and control freakery, was the convening of the Constitutional Convention. It was a good idea and it seems to have been very well run. The Government should be congratulated for doing that and we should have more of such conventions.

However, it is regrettable that the legislation before the House and the proposed referendum to reduce the age of eligibility for election to the office of President has taken priority over some other issues. My understanding is that the convention recommended making the Constitution gender neutral. We have one of the least gender balanced parliaments on earth; we are behind Afghanistan. The last time I checked we were 88th in the world. Making the Constitution gender neutral would be a very strong signal that Parliament and politics in Ireland are beginning to move on, to modernise and progress. The Constitutional Convention suggested lowering the age of eligibility for election to the Dáil from 21 to 18 years, which would be very useful.

I have tabled legislation on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, which is something that is not only preposterous in a modern society but is being used up to this day to quell dissent in ways with which I do not think anyone who believes in freedom of speech should be happy. There were many other options for this proposed referendum, if we have a very limited time and opportunity to get people to change the Constitution. While the first question, which is around marriage equality, is critically important, the second one should not have been prioritised over some of the other issues. I reiterate that while I believe this legislation and the proposed referendum are a missed opportunity, it is a small move in the right direction and I will be supporting it.

As a member of the Constitutional Convention, I recall that there was a great deal of debate surrounding the issue of whether we should lower the age of eligibility for election to the Office of President. It was a contentious issue with many arguments being put for and against the proposal. In the end, the recommendation to lower the age requirement was only passed by a majority of three votes. I was one of the 50 delegates who voted in favour of lowering the age requirement, 47 were against it and three members of the convention had no opinion on it at that time.

A number of people, both during the convention and in the media afterwards, criticised the concept of reducing the age of eligibility from 35 to 21 years of age. Certain commentators believe the decision to hold this referendum is patronising and a waste of money, with one particular individual going as far as to say that the referendum is an insult to the young people of Ireland. One of the most common arguments was that the Office of the President requires a certain degree of experience and a level of maturity, special qualities, some might say, that come with age. Others have said that a reduction in the age requirement would lead to a raft of unpresidential candidates being nominated.

These are relatively weak arguments for two reasons. First, as we all know, the nomination process for the presidency is an incredibly restrictive process, whereby four county councils or 20 Oireachtas Members are required to nominate a candidates. I remember this process well when my late female colleague on Longford County Council, councillor Philo Kelly, proposed that Dana be given a nomination to run for the presidency back in 1997. While this was a constitutionally legitimate means of gaining nomination to compete for the presidency, it was the first time it had been tried successfully and I am pleased that Longford County Council was one of the first councils to engage in this process. Either way, it is virtually impossible that an unpresidential or inexperienced candidate could come through this process.

The second reason lies with the citizens of Ireland. I firmly believe that the people of Ireland, through a popular vote, should be trusted to decide for themselves whether a candidate has the required level of experience for the presidency. Eoin O'Malley in his article, "The 2011 Presidential Election: Explaining the Outcome" pointed out:

Analysis of the 2011 Presidential election in Ireland shows that candidates were persistently criticised for being ill-informed about the specific responsibilities and qualification for the role. The evidence suggests that in Irish presidential election campaigns voters take a candidate's experience and qualifications seriously. Presidential contests since the 1990 election have been intensely personal, with a central focus on the suitability of the candidates for the position of president.

Eoin O'Malley was right in what he said. All the evidence to date shows that the people believe that the experience of a presidential candidate is an important factor.

Therefore, I believe it is actually quite insulting to suggest that the Irish people would elect an unsuitable candidate regardless of whether they are 21, 35 or 65 years. There are a number of reasons we should lower the age requirements. If this referendum were to be passed, we are creating diversity on the ballot paper and offering more choice to the Irish people. A quick glance towards some of our European neighbours shows many nations, like France, Croatia, Finland and Slovenia, with 18 years as the age requirement to stand for their respective presidencies. The fact that the age requirement is 18 years in France is noteworthy as they have one of the most powerful presidential systems in Europe.

Reducing the age of eligibility for the Presidency would create a broader reflection of Irish society. If 21 year olds have a vote in a presidential election, surely they should be afforded the right to stand as candidates. I remind the House what an Oireachtas all-party committee on the Constitution recommended in 1998. It called for the age requirement to be dropped to 18 years and felt that there was no logical reason for setting the age at which one becomes eligible to be President higher than that at which one may exercise the right to vote in elections.

It was interesting to listen to Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett talk about other issues, including young people being homeless at 25 or 26 years. On the issue of homelessness, the Deputy is all talk and little action. If he was a good constituency worker, this would not be the situation in his constituency. It all depends on his ability to get things done in his constituency.

The Deputy should stick to the legislation.

In conclusion, the arguments for reducing the age requirement for the Presidency are much greater than those against and that is why I will support the forthcoming referendum.

I welcome the measures proposed in the referendum. There can be little reasoned or objective opposition to it except to wonder why we did not reduce it to 18 years. The Government has taken the maxim from Animal Farm that all animals are equal but some are more equal than others as an instruction rather than an ironic statement. The Government is very good at singling out young people when it comes to cuts in their social protection payments. The Government was quick in its crusade to attack 18 year olds, who were specifically targeted by the Labour Party in strategic attacks on young people.

However, that will not distract us from supporting the referendum. In a presidential election, it ought to be up to the electorate to determine whether the person is sufficiently mature at 18, 21 or 35 years to hold national office. Maturity is not a matter of age. I meet many 18 year olds who demonstrate more maturity than many of the Ministers who sit on the Government side of the House.

I have some questions. Is this it? Is this the extent of the democratic revolution? Is this what it is all about? Some €35 million has been put on the table to run a referendum. In the lifetime of this Government the funding of €35 million ring-fenced for mental health services has never been spent. Young people, 18 year olds, children and adolescents have been waiting years for mental health services and this is the extent of the democratic revolution. The Government has not spent one penny of the ring-fenced money and failed to honour the protection of the most vulnerable people while this is the flagship political reform. I am completely underwhelmed by the democratic revolution and I am not alone because the public are completely underwhelmed by the Government.

In various discussions in my constituency and beyond, I found broad awareness about the marriage referendum but no one knows anything about this proposal. It says a lot about the characteristic of this Government that it uses this as some form of fig leaf on political and constitutional reform. It is underwhelming and pathetic but that cannot distract us and distract this party from supporting the engagement of young people. Many people have confessed to me their views on the paucity of ambition in this Government and ask me whether this is all the Government has to offer in terms of political and constitutional reform. There was a glorious opportunity to put to the people in May a referendum on public ownership of Irish Water. When I knock on doors on Saturday afternoons and ask people to come out and vote to ensure the participation of young people, people ask me whether this is it. It is pathetic. One speaker described it as underwhelming and I must agree.

The Constitutional Convention was given a limited range of subject matter to examine and, like the Government, there was nothing too radical on the agenda. This was strategically chosen so that the status quo could be protected. Do not allow the Constitutional Convention to run away with itself, give it a limited mandate and make sure the network and the club upstairs in the ministerial offices continues as has been the case before. The democratic revolution was only words on a programme for Government and was never going to be an action. The Government managed to limit the brief of the Constitutional Convention and come up with well-reasoned arguments why it should not be ambitious. An underwhelming agenda was offered to the Constitutional Convention. Is this the best constitutional and political reform after where we have come from, given the appetite of the people of this country for wholescale reform? Is this it, reducing the participation age to 21 years?

I refer to the gusto with which the Government attacked core rates of social protection payments for vulnerable people. I look across the Chamber at the party that claims as its core principle the issue of equality. What chance does an 18 or 19 year old have to run for the Presidency of the country if they receive €100 per week, having had social protection payments pulled off them by the Tánaiste, Deputy Burton? If this is the summit of the ambition of the Government for political and constitutional reform, the public is gunning for the Government parties. We have a job of work to do on this side of the House because I want to see this referendum passed. The public has no idea what is going on and I doubt many of the backbenchers in government know about it because we can see that from their participation in the debate.

On the Constitutional Convention, some of the recommendations that should have happened involved social issues. The marriage referendum was born of the Constitutional Convention but we did not see any progress on blasphemy. Despite the fact that Fine Gael and Labour stood before the people in 2011 and said they would tackle this wholeheartedly, there is no political reform. It is hard to know who is frightened on the issue of tackling blasphemy. It is appalling. I refer to the Constitutional Convention and the subject matter of political reform. If this is the extent of the ambition of the Government, the public sees through it.

Debate adjourned.

Cuireadh an díospóireacht ar athló.